The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' inside linebacker unit has been a position in flux in recent weeks, and that continued this week due to the broken arm suffered by Jack Cichy in the team's Divisional Playoff win at New Orleans.
The Buccaneers placed Cichy on injured reserve on Tuesday and signed Deone Bucannon to the active roster off the practice squad. Tampa Bay then used the open spot on its practice squad to bring back rookie guard Nick Leverett.
Though it doesn't yet affect the 53-man roster, Tampa Bay has also designated running back Kenjon Barner to return from injured reserve. As is the case with defensive lineman Vita Vea, who was designated to return from IR on Monday, Barner can return to practice with the team on Wednesday. The Buccaneers have a 21-day window in which he does not count against the roster, and he can be activated at any time. That means Barner could conceivably return to game action as soon as this Sunday in Green Bay.
In addition, the Buccaneers used all four of their four available practice squad protection options for the NFC Championship Game week. The protected players are safety Javon Hagan, kicker Greg Joseph, guard Ted Larsen and cornerback Herb Miller.
Both Bucannon and Cichy had only recently returned to Tampa, the former signing to the practice squad on January 6, four days after the latter had been re-signed to the active roster. Bucannon and Cichy both played in the win over the Saints on special teams, as they also served as the two backups to starting inside linebackers Lavonte David and Devin White. Bucannon has played in the last two games after being elevated from the practice squad.
The Buccaneers were without inside linebacker Kevin Minter, their top reserve, last week because he was on the reserve/COVID-19 list. In the two games prior to that, Minter started alongside David while White was the COVID list. Tampa Bay also waived rookie inside linebacker Chapelle Russell on January 8.
Bucannon offers a wealth of experience in Tampa Bay's defense, including the first five games of the 2019 season. He also played four years (2014-17) with Bruce Arians in Arizona, the first of those with Todd Bowles as the defensive coordinator. Arians and the Cardinals drafted Bucannon out of Washington State with the 27th overall pick in 2014 and developed him into a safety-linebacker hybrid who would start 56 games over the next four seasons.
Bucannon primarily played on special teams for the Buccaneers in 2019 and was eventually released on October 9. He caught on quickly with the New York Giants and played in nine more games last year with one start. Bucannon became a free agent last spring and signed with Atlanta in May, eventually ending up on the Falcons' practice squad to start the season. He was released on September 29.
In all, Bucannon has played in 84 regular season games with 57 starts. He has recorded 434 tackles, 28 tackles for loss, 7.0 sacks, 15 QB hits, two interceptions (one returned for a touchdown), 12 passes defensed, seven forced fumbles and five fumble recoveries.
Barner played in six games before suffering a groin injury and being placed on injured reserve in December 30. He has spent the minimum three games that a player must remain on IR before he is eligible to return. Barner primarily served as a return man, averaging 5.8 yards on 13 punt returns and 23.9 yards on seven kickoff runbacks.
Leverett originally signed with the Buccaneers as an undrafted free agent out of Rice in May. He spent all 17 weeks of the regular season on Tampa Bay's practice squad before being released on January 6 to make room for Bucannon's arrival.
Joseph and Miller have become fixtures on the team's weekly practice squad protection list, Joseph for every game this season and Miller in each of the last seven weeks. Larsen has also been protected four weeks in a row. This is first time on the list for Hagan, but the rookie safety was elevated from the practice squad for last Sunday's game before being declared inactive.
Each team in the NFL is allowed up to four practice squad protections per week, and they take effect at 4:00 p.m. ET on Tuesday. Protected players cannot be signed away by another team from then through the day of the upcoming game. Unprotected players are always free to sign with another team if the new team is adding them to the 53-man active roster.
The practice squad protection rule was put in place over the summer as the CBA was revised to give teams greater roster flexibility amid the pandemic. All practice squad players still have opportunities to get promoted by other teams between when their team's game is played and the next Tuesday deadline.